Last week, Eric Adams claimed victory in the Democratic primary for New York City’s November mayoral election. That win was seen widely as an almost de facto triumph for the mayoral contest itself, as Democrats have a 7-to-1 registration advantage in New York, and the Republican candidate is the charismatic—but fundamentally unserious—tabloid gadfly Curtis Sliwa. Sliwa’s main professional achievement up to this point is serving as the founder of the “Guardian Angels,” a volunteer security group with a storied history in New York City.
Despite Adams being the heavy favorite, Sliwa likes to note that he has secured “Independent” ballot status on top of his Republican ballot placement, a tactic that was key to Michael Bloomberg’s victory as the last GOP candidate to win the mayorship in 2001. And he carries the endorsement of one of New York’s other recent Republican mayors, Rudy Giuliani, with whom he’s had a decadeslong personal relationship. Still, he doesn’t associate himself with the last politician to emerge from decades as a mainstay of New York City tabloid journalism and shameless self-promoter to claim a surprise victory in a Republican primary: “I didn’t vote for Donald Trump the first time or the second time,” Sliwa told Bloomberg News last week.
So, what’s the deal with Curtis Sliwa? Perhaps it’s most useful to analyze him through his various incarnations over the past six decades to get a better understanding of the man who almost definitely won’t be the next mayor of New York City, but still weirdly has some kind of chance.
What was Curtis Sliwa’s deal in the 1970s?
Sliwa’s almost preternatural ability to generate publicity first surfaced in 1971 at the age of just 17, when the Daily News reported that he was honored by Richard Nixon at the White House as part of a ceremony for newspaper delivery boys. Sliwa wasn’t there as just a newspaper boy; according to the Daily News, he had also allegedly saved six people from a burning building.
Sliwa next made the news as an assistant manager at a Bronx McDonald’s in 1977 when he started a local neighborhood cleanup crew called the “Rock Brigade” (“the Rock” being Sliwa’s nickname at the time). That crew became part of a public initiative to clean up the city’s litter problems and was even given an award by the city’s sanitation commissioner. For better or worse, the Rock Brigade quickly morphed into an unarmed vigilante group patrolling the city’s at-the-time crime-ridden subways, and transformed itself into being called the “Magnificent 13,” and then ultimately came to be known as the “Guardian Angels.” The Angels grew from 13 to hundreds and eventually thousands of volunteers, largely representing the diverse backgrounds of the communities where they were patrolling. While they initially feuded with the city over their unarmed patrols, they eventually won the support of numerous New York City mayors and were granted a sort of neighborhood watch status.
Sliwa continued through the 1970s to garner local and national news hits through various stunts related to his anti-crime crusade, like protesting the release of the film The Warriors, because he claimed it depicted gangs in a positive light and that the “R rating” was not being enforced. And he rocketed to tabloid fame for good at the end of 1978, after two members of his crew returned a lost wallet with $300 inside to a 65-year-old woman and were given a $300 reward that they said they planned to use for “brooms and gloves and T-shirts” for their cleanup crew. More than a decade later, Sliwa admitted the episode, along with several of his exploits as head of the Guardian Angels that helped him burnish his reputation as a crime fighter, was faked.
Curtis Sliwa’s 1970s NYC Pop Culture Equivalent: He was compared to Travis Bickle at the time, but a more generous comparison would be another tough-talking taxi driver who thought highly of himself, Tony Banta.
Typical 1970s Curtis Sliwa Quote: “We rushed them. Five of them ran. So did the woman. The sixth guy, a 6-foot-6 monster, lifted Keith off the ground by the neck. Phil and I threw a few kicks at him. He fell and came up with a sawed-off shotgun. I kicked at his head. The kick rammed the gun into his face. He tumbled down the stairs. I crashed into the railing and tumbled over it, falling down to the street. Bruised but no broken ribs.”
—Sliwa describing to the Daily News in 1979 an attempted gang rape that he said he and his group personally thwarted, but which he later admitted never happened
What was Curtis Sliwa’s deal in the 1980s?
Sliwa’s Guardian Angels kept patrolling the subway in their uniforms of goofy T-shirts and red berets, and he kept making up stories, sometimes to the dismay of public officials and police officers. Sliwa himself came under investigation from the Bronx district attorney after concocting a story that four Transit Authority police officers had kidnapped him for four hours (they hadn’t, and he was let off with a warning). He also feuded with Mayor Ed Koch, calling the mayor a “bonehead.” Their relationship got better after the mayor’s criminal justice coordinator investigated the Angels and issued a glowing report, with Koch praising the Angels by the end of the decade. While the Guardian Angels grew in the 1980s, Sliwa seemed to spend a lot of time being famous for being famous, with the Washington Post’s Joyce Wadler calling him “the only gang leader in the country with a publicist.” As Wadler wrote in 1981, “he’s a celebrity these days, appearing on Tom Snyder’s television show, strolling through Greenwich Village with Abbie Hoffman, traveling to Philadelphia for a radio show.”
Curtis Sliwa’s 1980s NYC Pop Culture Equivalent: Dr. Peter Venkman.
Typical 1980s Curtis Sliwa Quote: “Sure. If I put my mind to it, I could do anything. If I wanted to make money, I’d make pots. If I wanted it, there’s not a political office I couldn’t win. But I’m not interested. Sure, I’ve got the ability to rap, the ability to argue, maybe even the ability to chop your n— off, but we also have the idea whose time has come. It’s inevitable.”
—Sliwa boasting about the Guardian Angels to then–Washington Post reporter David Remnick in 1981
What was Curtis Sliwa’s deal in the 1990s?
Sliwa parlayed his fame into a gig as a radio shock jock. He then used his platform to endorse Rudy Giuliani’s run for mayor, campaigning for Giuliani in 1993 and even claiming that David Dinkins—the city’s first Black mayor—had won their previous mayoral contest because of “voter fraud.” After Giuliani won the election and Sliwa lost his radio job, the mayor controversially gave Sliwa a new hosting gig at the city-owned WNYC radio. Even as the Guardian Angels’ relevance and numbers declined with the decrease of the city’s crime problem, Sliwa continued to cement his status as a New York tabloid institution under Giuliani’s reign, doing things like promoting the city’s stickball championship as “stickball commissioner” and competing in the Nathan’s Fourth of July hot dog–eating contest. Oh, he also used his radio platform to relentlessly scrutinize notorious mob boss John Gotti, and subsequently survived an assassination attempt—allegedly ordered by Gotti’s son—when he was kidnapped in the back of a taxi, shot five times in the thigh and lower abdomen, and miraculously escaped by catapulting himself out of the passenger side window. While many of Sliwa’s other exploits occurred under suspicious circumstances, or were later proved to be hoaxes, the shooting that nearly took his life was very real and his escape was some serious Spider-Man shit.
Curtis Sliwa’s 1990s NYC Pop Culture Equivalent: John McClane.
Typical 1990s Curtis Sliwa Quote: “Hit the candy store on 7th Street (Ray), sometimes get an egg cream. If it’s good, you have a good day; if it’s lousy, you have a lousy day, and then you flag a cab.”
—Sliwa describing his typical morning, including the one when he was shot, to Charlie Rose in 1992
What was Curtis Sliwa’s deal in the 2000s?
Sliwa divorced his second wife and married his third and started a new Hannity & Colmes–style radio program with famed civil rights lawyer Ron Kuby. He continued to open various new branches of Guardian Angels all around the world. And he testified against John Gotti Jr. in a racketeering trial that ended in a hung jury, alleging that his assassination attempt was ordered by the Gambino family boss. During that trial, Gotti Jr.’s lawyers were able to dent Sliwa’s credibility because of all of the fake publicity stunts in his past, but all in all, it was a relatively boring decade Sliwa-wise.
Curtis Sliwa’s 2000s NYC Pop Culture Equivalent: Lennie Briscoe.
Typical 2000s Curtis Sliwa Quote: “I would like to see him in hell without an asbestos suit.”
—Sliwa on John Gotti Jr.
What was Curtis Sliwa’s deal in the 2010s?
This was the decade in which Sliwa’s tabloid fame—which (aside from the hoaxes) had always been mostly for good-natured things, like eating hot dogs competitively or surviving assassination attempts—deteriorated precipitously. First, he got in trouble for doing a racist Hispanic “character” on a NY1 debate show. He was ultimately suspended from that program for sexist remarks about City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito. (As part of his 2021 mayoral campaign, his first political race, he apologized for both of those incidents.) Perhaps worse for Sliwa, the tabloid attention he did receive revolved mainly around the sordid details of his personal life, with his third wife filing for divorce and alleging that he was an “inveterate, world-class liar” who had an affair with Melinda Katz, with whom he has two children. After Sliwa and Katz split up, he threatened to run against her to take her job as Queens borough president, but never followed through. He did take over New York’s Reform Party for a brief period, before reverting back to the Republican Party after Trump left office.
Indeed, despite being a conservative radio host, Sliwa was never taken in by Donald Trump. In fact, when Trump made false smears against Muslim residents of Paterson, New Jersey, during the Republican primary campaign in 2015—falsely claiming that thousands in the community had publicly celebrated the 9/11 attacks—he cited Sliwa as his source, but Sliwa quickly corrected the record and pointed out that Trump was lying.*
Curtis Sliwa’s 2010s NYC Pop Culture Equivalent: Stephen Colbert of The Colbert Report.
Typical 2010s Curtis Sliwa Quote: “I don’t know where Trump is on any subject from one day to the next. He’s like the pancake man. Now if you’re sycophantonian lackey, you’ll accept that from Trump. I just don’t want my president walking around with a nuclear football going, ‘Bububublubulbul, should I bomb, should I not bomb, should I bomb, should I tweet, should I not tweet, should I text, hey let me ask Ivanka what I should do.’ Ooffa.”
—Sliwa to Newsmax during Trump’s first presidential run in 2016
What is Curtis Sliwa’s deal now?
All this brings us to the long shot mayoral candidacy of Curtis Sliwa today. And what is that Sliwa like? He’s emphasizing his unofficial crime-fighting job at a time when both parties’ candidates seemed to have advanced to the final round based on tough-on-crime promises. (Adams is a former NYPD police captain who was seen as one of the biggest opponents of criminal justice reform advocates in the field.) He also is highly critical of the Black Lives Matter protest movement and is an effusive supporter of the city’s police—endorsing the hiring of 3,000 more cops and criticizing Adams for supporting an end to qualified immunity.
He also believes that his secret weapon in the race will be his latest reputation as an animal rights advocate, boasting regularly on the campaign trail that he and his fourth wife live in a small Upper West Side studio apartment with 15 rescue cats.
Curtis Sliwa’s 2020s NYC Pop Culture Equivalent: Phoebe from the Friends reunion.
Typical 2020s Curtis Sliwa Quote: “This is the time of day that the cats are all frisky and they wanna play and we have to sort of get all that excess energy out of them because at night when they’re nocturnal, they’re bouncing off the walls, they’re bouncing off their play areas, and they’re making our life far less than normal. But it’s well worth all of the interruption in our lifestyle that these 15 cats give us to know that these 15 cats are going to have a life of their own and they’re going to be safe and secure in Casa Sliwa here on the Upper West Side. They deserve it. They’re our furry little friends. And they’re our family members. And we want to keep them out of harm’s way. And we’re going to do that throughout the city of New York.”
—Sliwa speaking last month to the New York Post
Correction, July 13, 2021: This post originally misspelled Paterson, New Jersey.